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Empowered by Metaphysics : HUNTERS AND GATHERERS, By Francine Prose (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $20; 247 pp.)

August 13, 1995|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman's latest book, "This Damn House," is due out from Villard next spring

This is embarrassing to admit, but there was a time, back when I was single, when I was entranced by all things metaphysical. I wiled away dateless hours reading "A Course in Miracles," chanting affirmations such as "I, Margo, am now attracting large sums of cash," and practicing creative visualizations (the only thing I ever managed to manifest successfully were parking spaces). Luckily, before I could get into re-birthing or astral projection, I met and married my skeptical husband.

Still, my flirtation with the New Age predisposed me to appreciate Francine Prose's 10th novel, "Hunters and Gatherers," an exquisitely written, amusing, though somewhat irritating account of a left-brained New Yorker's encounter with a cult of feminist goddess worshipers. It's difficult toimagine a heroine more in need of enlightenment than Martha, a 30-year-old fact checker at Mode, a fashion magazine, who has just been rejected by her boyfriend, Dennis, an abusive guy straight out of "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them."

To say that Martha has a bad self-image is to put it kindly. She loathes her body: "Her pale, twig-like body sticking out of its skimpy swimsuit; her newly hatched-duckling Mercurochrome-orange hair, a regrettable recent mistake; her huge black eyes, all pupil, like those of some sort of lemur or sloth." She dislikes her apartment and she's not fond of her job, which is "not merely boring, underpaid and demeaning, but also pointedly symbolic of what she most despised about herself: her starchy literal-mindedness, her unintuitive narrowness."

The reader hopes her negative attitude will be transformed when the moping Martha, spending Labor Day weekend at Fire Island with a friend's elderly parents, wanders into a crowd of cheerful, overtly affectionate women frolicking on the beach. She meets a radiology technician named Randi ("But my goddess name is Hegwitha"), who informs her that "many women are reclaiming their spirituality by honoring the goddess, the original female deity whom the matriarchal cultures have reverenced since the Stone Age." This particular coven--filled with cartoonish acolytes with names like Joy, Diana, Starling and Titania--is run by Isis Moonwagon, an accident-prone academic with substantial real estate holdings turned priestess-shaman-healer. When Isis nearly drowns in a Druid ritual honoring Persephone's return from Hades, Martha, a fearless swimmer, dives in to the mounting surf and rescues her.

This uncharacteristic act of valor earns her an invitation to stay at the celebrants' sacred space, Isis' capacious Victorian beach house, known as the Ovulary. "We needed a name for the place where we came together to worship," Isis explains. "We meditated on how 'seminary' derives, linguistically, from semen--a place where men could go and not waste their semen." Desperate for acceptance, Martha is unable to resist.

Francine Prose has a remarkable eye for detail. "The room's centerpiece was a huge low circular table painted with red-and-black Arabic calligraphy and surrounded by tapestry pillows and sausage-like bolsters: the ideal setting for warring tribal chiefs to eat a sheep's head and talk peace." The book comes to life when the author is poking fun at drumming, chanting, spirit dancing, meditating, sweat lodges and the talking stick ritual, where a club decorated with feather and cloth scraps is passed around and the devotee holding it gets to make an uninterrupted confession.

Eventually, however the bizarre rituals and goddess-speak lose their fizz. I wanted to yank the annoyingly dense Martha off the sacred path. It would have been easier had the matriarchy been more attractive, but each celebrant has a distressingly banal, Oprah-episode-type problem--eating disorders, toxic relationships--and few redeeming qualities. Yet seemingly riveted by their sheer awfulness, Martha accompanies the zealots on a loony vision quest to New Mexico, even though she can't afford it, having been fired.

The unsatisfying climax comes when a zealot's daughter rather sensibly runs away from the Four Feathers Institute following a humiliating encounter in a sweat lodge. The supposedly empowered women turn for help to the only male around, a clearly identifiable deadbeat. Martha notes this with dismay. "Joy, Starling, Diana, Isis--with their contempt for male intelligence, their belief that men were only good for making war and donor sperm--were reverting back to some learned response, some primitive form of wiring that, when lightning hit, conveyed the charge to the nearest male."

Yet for all her ability to judge and criticize, Martha remains maddeningly reluctant to claim her own power . In the beginning of the novel, she laments that her life is "a series of choices that seemed less like clear decisions than like a series of stumbles down the path of least resistance," but her evolution is negligible. Toward the end, the author offers a teeny peek into her future, so we can see that Martha will ultimately marry and have children of her own; I was more disconcerted than comforted. I didn't need a Ouija board to predict that her future husband will be a spineless overachiever or an obdurate creep.

Oh well, goddess help her.

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